Sunday, 25 January 2015

Short Story News, Jan 2015

It doesn't seem that long since I was grumbling about how I couldn't sell short stories anymore, and now, seemingly out of nowhere, I have an awful lot of stuff (by my standards) on the way over the next few months.  Admittedly that's partly because a lot of my acceptances from last year have been taking a fair old while to come out, but still, this writing lark, eh?  First you're up, then you're down, then you're somewhere around the middle, then you're standing at a bus-stop in Wales trying not to get smacked by some bloke dressed as a Stormtrooper.

Anyhow, it now feels like I have more than enough stuff on the way that I should actually tell people about it, especially since there are a couple of things due out pretty soon, so here's the current state of play...
  • First up, I've a fair few stories in anthologies scheduled for the coming months.  Almost certain to be first out of the gate is XIII from Resurrection House, due in March and containing my Twilight for the Nightingale, (the one I keep referring to as my homoerotic supervillian story and then being surprised when that doesn't make people want to read it.)  Then in April we have The Hair of the Hound - an older story but a personal favourite - in Pantheon Magazine's Gaia: Shadow and Breath, followed in May by The Shark in the Heart in Sharkpunk, to be released by Snowbooks and edited by the irreducible Mr Jonathan Green.  (Jon is in full-on promotion mode right now, so expect to hear a lot about this one, and maybe have a look at its official Facebook page or blog or keep an eye out on twitter for @Sharkpunked and the #Sharkpunk hashtag.)  After that we have a bit of a gap until August and Purple Sun Press's first ever collection, Coven, which includes my All We May Know of God, a sequel of sorts to the also-anthologised No Rest For the Wicked.  Last up, due to a date not having been announced yet, there's Eldritch Press's Our World of Horror, and my twisted tale of sort-of sibling rivalry Br(other).
  • Elsewhere, I've a couple of stories waiting to be podcast, one new - Twitcher at Pseudopod, due on the exceedingly specific date of March 27th - and one old, namely Caretaker in the Garden of Dreams, to be published for the fourth time and podcast for the second at The Drabblecast, though without a date as yet.
  • As for magazines, it would seem a shame not to start with this year's most exciting anniversary: the oft-great and always bonkers Theaker's Quarterly Fiction is about to hit its fiftieth issue, and my equally bonkers, Escheresque Sci-fi story* The House That Cordone Built will be within its pages.
  • Honestly, I've never been as gobsmacked by a sale as I was when Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine accepted my story Step Light.  It's my one and only stab at writing  Crime short fiction, I had no idea if it was any good, and I only had the temerity to send it to AHMM because I'd run out of other ideas.  Selling to one of Dell Publishing's magazines has been on my writing bucket list forever, but I always imagined that if it ever happened it would be Asimov's or Analog.  Like I said ...writing, huh?  It's a weird old business.
  • And last up only because it has the word "last" in the title (and because I only found out about it half way through the post) my kinda-steampunk Fantasy story Last Call is going to be in Nameless Digest, though that's about all the details I know as yet.
So that's it for the moment.  And perhaps it's a good job, too, because for the absolute first time ever I'm starting to run low on things to sell.

Better get on writing, I suppose...

* And, it occurs to me now, blatant homage to Heinlein's glorious "And He Built a Crooked House", even right down to the title.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Announcing The War of the Rats

As their officially delegated spokeshuman, it falls upon me to announce that the rat populace of the world is - as of this date, the 18th of January 2015 - declaring total war upon the human population of the Earth.  They've had enough, frankly, and they're just not going to take it any more.  Pack your bags, people, and start looking for another planet with more placid rodents, because as of tomorrow this one is officially Ratworld Prime.

No, wait, that's not at all what this post was supposed to be about.   (Shuffles notes.)

Hum.  Okay.  So, I mentioned a few incoming projects in my round-up of last year, and it was a huge relief, because all of them were things I've been getting horribly excited about for ages now and not been able to talk much about.  And, thinking about it, a couple of them still fall into that category - though hopefully for not too much longer - but there's one at least that I can finally announce, and so this is me doing just that.

Here's one of the illustrations we DIDN'T use.
The War of the Rats and Other Tales, as it's tentatively known, is my first single-author collection of short fiction.  It's coming out from Spectral Press, (you know Spectral, they get nominated for British Fantasy Awards with alarming reality and have or are due to publish work by most of the top writers in British horror,) in August of this year, in e-book, paperback and super special, limited edition hardback.  And all of those editions will include illustrations by my artist mate and long term collaborator Duncan Kay, who seems to get better by the month and is currently sending me stuff that, frankly, would make your toes curl.  Seriously, there's a reason I've wrangled Duncan into two of my major releases for this year, and that reason is that he's shockingly good at this illustrating lark.  Whatever else The War of the Rats and Other Tales is, it's going to look beautiful.

That possibly means that I run the risk of my stories being upstaged in my own first short story collection; still, if readers manage to tear their eyes from the pictures, I'm hopeful that some of my all-time best fiction is going into this thing.  I mean, we have stories that have appeared in some of my favourite markets: places like Nightmare, Bull Spec, Flash Fiction Online.  We've got a tale that was in a Stoker-nominated anthology, another that was in last year's Stoker winner, (which, by the way, also happens to be my personal choice for the best horror story I've written.)  Maybe most exciting for me, we have my Spectral novelette, previously only available in very limited edition, and a new novelette written at the end of last year especially for the collection.

That one's called The War of the Rats, funnily enough.  And it isn't about rats declaring war on humanity.  I just made all of that up.

Or ... did I?

No, I did.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

2014: Year One

I'm pretty certain I've never put as much weight of expectation on a year as I did 2014.

I mean, as the year when I gave up my old, safe career in IT for my new, hazardous career in professional Authoring, the pressure on these last twelve months has been absurd.  Almost all of it self-imposed, it has to be said, because everyone I know without exception has been completely supportive; but for my own sanity, I needed to know for sure that I had a chance of making this thing work and that I hadn't just driven my life off a cliff in some fit of self-delusion.  Not only that but my health, social life, home and pretty much everything else were in shabby condition indeed at the start of the year, and I wasn't about to let them stay that way for a day longer than I had to.

That basically left me fighting on three fronts.  I had to produce enough work, and enough of an increase over what I'd been able to do around a full-time day job, to feel like I'd done the right thing; I needed to try and sell some stuff if at all possible, since otherwise I'd be that bit closer to running out of money; and somewhere amidst all of that I needed to sort out basically all of the rest of my life.

I won't dwell too much on that last one, except to say that things are vastly better now than they were twelve months ago.  And number two, that's kind of tricky to quantify, so we'll come back to it.  But as for getting the work done, yeah, that's definitely been a success.  Frankly, I even shocked myself a bit.  After years of making grand plans only to have them sabotaged by cold, hard reality, it was easy to assume I was expecting far too much.  I wanted to get drafts down of three novels: World War One-set Sci-Fi novel To End All Wars, post-apocalyptic thriller (and part-rewrite of earlier project War For Funland) Degenerates and my first hesitant step into Crime writing, The Bad Neighbour.  On top of that, I wanted to finish a few short stories, comics and such, and I had a great deal of research to get through.  With all of that ahead, and however much it looked doable on paper, I couldn't but go in with the assumption that I was basically doomed to failure.

So to be sitting here with everything I wanted done done is a strange feeling.  Beyond the fact of having it all finished, and given that Degenerates ended up being such a strange hybrid of revamping and reinventing my unfinished second novel War For Funland, it's difficult put an exact number on how much I wrote in 2014; but guesstimating that half of Degenerates was essentially new work, I'd say I've produced about 260'000 words of new novels, plus some 55'000 of shorter work over seven short stories, one comic and a novelette.  With the second draft of To End All Wars, two redrafts of my first novella Patchwerk and much polishing work on some of some older stories, I'd be surprised if I've done less than 200'000 words of editing on top of that.  All of which is heartening, because it means I can comfortably write and edit two novels a year, plus a few other bits and pieces, and I figure - based on little real evidence - that that's about what I need to be doing to make some kind of a living.

Which brings us neatly to the topic of selling things.  On that front, things were going appallingly until late in the year, and though I hadn't expected much, (I had no novels to pitch, after all), I'd still hoped to do much better off short fiction than I did.  That never entirely turned around, but a few other things - arguably much more exciting things - did come together in the eleventh hour.

First up, I have a buyer agreed for Patchwerk.  I can't say who yet, but I can say that they were my absolutely first choice and are a publisher I'm hugely excited to be working with.  Both of which are also true for my graphic novel C21st Gods, which went from a long-talked about dream project between myself and artist Duncan Kay to a concrete reality, by such a bizarre chain of events that it's a story in itself, and one I'll probably share here in the not-too-distant future.  Then lastly - and the one thing I can officially announce - there came the contract signing on my long-gestating short story collection The War of the Rats and Other Tales, which will be coming out from my absolutely favourite Horror small press, Spectral, in August of this year.

With three major projects and a ton of short fiction scheduled for the next twelve months, I'm starting 2015 in a stronger position than I ever anticipated.  And as if that wasn't enough, the belated discovery that Working Tax Credit is a thing has put my financial situation on a less tenuous footing than I expected it would be at this point.  With To End All Wars almost ready to go out and both Degenerates and The Bad Neighbour hopefully to be finished before the end of the year, the question now becomes, can I sell novels too?  And, perhaps the even bigger question, can I do it for enough money to live off?

Well, who the hell knows, right?  But at least I'm looking forward to trying, and twelve months ago I never thought I'd be saying that.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 2)

Here we go, then, with the final five of my hopelessly long-winded top ten list of 2014's Fantasy and Science Fiction movies...

(You can find part one here.)

5) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

What with this and The Hunger Games, it seems increasingly that how attached I get to a franchise is inversely related to how much I was looking forward to it in advance, because I'd never particularly been a devotee of the original Planet of the Apes series and now two movies in I can't wait to see where they take these prequels next.  Rise was a solid, surprisingly intelligent adult Sci-fi movie, and Dawn takes all of that and runs with it, in some distinctly interesting directions.

Because Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is basically a two hour movie about people (and people-like apes) trying to avoid conflict, and there's something fascinating in just how much that makes it unlike almost every summer blockbuster out there.  It's not a film that you spend eagerly anticipating the big action climax, it's a film where you dread its inevitability, because the minute the explosions and shooting and apes-riding-horses kicks off is the moment when decency, common sense and our species' ability to not wipe itself off the planet by being achingly stupid have all failed.  As such, it has plenty in common with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1; but for me Dawn edges that film out by intentionally being about its subjects rather than forcedly discussing them because some studio exec decided it can't end for another year's time.

4) The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wait, this isn't a Fantasy and / or Science Fiction film, stop trying to sneak your filthy Art House movies onto the list, Tallerman! is what I imagine someone, somewhere saying.  But even if, as is far more likely, I'm only arguing this one with myself, nevertheless it's been puzzling me ever since I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel just where Wes Anderson's latest fits with my ideas of what genre movies are supposed to be.  And the conclusion I keep coming back to is that somewhere in the last decade, Anderson went from being a director of largely great, precious, over-directed movies about people talking and became the most interesting film fantasist working today.

It all began with The Life Aquatic, I think; that's the tipping point where Anderson's films stopped clearly belonging to any definable 'real world'.  But The Grand Budapest Hotel is the peak of Anderson's budding fantasist tendencies: it exists entirely in its own strange, tangential reality, an alternate Europe of Prisoner of Zenda-esque invented countries, larger than life characters and hotels that look like giant goddamn cakes.  That makes it a very specific kind of Fantasy for sure, and a kind that absolutely no one else seems interested in creating, but for me that only makes it that bit more exciting.

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 As a huge fan of Ed Brubaker's already-legendary run on the comic, part of me had been looking forward to this film from the moment that the first Captain America was announced; and with that weight of expectation, the fact that The Winter Soldier didn't disappoint is just plain astonishing. 

One reason for that is surely how it treats its source material and subject with the utmost respect and intelligence.  More than any superhero movie I can think of, it feels like an adaptation of a particular arc, which is absolutely weird because it plays just as fast and loose with its source material as any other - yet in a way I can't quite put my finger on, The Winter Soldier nails the tone and characterization of Brubaker's run perfectly.  It certainly hews closely to the author's take on its protagonist, perhaps the most interesting interpretation of one of Marvel's most interesting and generally misunderstood heroes.  Captain America the character has been more about critiquing his nation than representing it for a long time now, and the script, not to mention Evans's nuanced performance, captures that spirit, of a man who stands for his country by representing it better than it itself does or can.  The outstanding fight choreography, the wonderful core cast, the film's success in giving them all time to shine without losing focus, and the way that The Winter Soldier casually upends the status quo of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe at a time when critics were beginning to grumble that such a thing was never going to happen are also definite bonuses.

2) Interstellar

Though a part of me can see exactly why Interstellar has been so divisive, I wonder if sometimes we genre fans don't get so caught up with what we want or expect that we miss what we're actually getting.  Interstellar has flaws aplenty, some of them gaping and undeniable and practically film-breaking, but it's also an epic, giant-budget, standalone Science-Fiction movie that at least nods in the direction of scientific rigor, (even if it does subsequently kick it into some kind of black hole / space library plot gimmick), and I for one was beginning to fear that I might go the rest of my life without seeing another one of those. 

Point being, I can certainly imagine better Sci-Fi films than Interstellar, and I can even imagine a film quite close to Interstellar that's better than what Nolan actually delivered, but neither of those facts detracts from how grateful I am that I got to spend three hours in a cinema watching the thing and being awed and entranced by its sheer scale, ambition and imagination.   Because judged on those terms - that is, on what it does, and does astonishingly - Interstellar is almost without equal.

1) Lucy

Even more so than Interstellar, I find it hard to blame anyone for criticizing Lucy.  It is without a doubt the dumbest smart movie, or perhaps the smartest dumb movie I saw all year, but either way it's both of those things, in some combination that has no right at all to work.

Its blurb on IMDB, in fact, sums this up nicely: "A woman, accidentally caught in a dark deal, turns the tables on her captors and transforms into a merciless warrior evolved beyond human logic."  "Beyond human logic" ...  yup, there's the rub.  Lucy does not care one jot about human logic.  It takes its thoroughly, blatantly silly premise - if we could just use all of our brains instead of a teeny bit of them we would have crazy super god powers! - and then runs with it as hard as it can, oblivious as its protagonist to the fact that reality and story-logic are busily exploding around it, like that football player in The Dark Knight Rises.

For this, I love it.  And the fact that in a great but nevertheless faintly disappointing year for genre film-making, in which so many promising movies were flawed to a greater or lesser degree by commercial logic, Lucy just goes for it, regardless of jarring tonal shifts or narrative logic or any other damn thing, makes it my favourite Science Fiction film of 2014.  If only more dumb movies were so smart.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Film Ramble: Top 10 Fantasy and Science Fiction Films of 2014 (Part 1)

So in a sense I'm only doing this because I did one last year, and in another sense the fact that I did it last year means that a part of my brain has been planning this post for the entire last twelve months.  Which makes it particularly disappointing that 2014 has been, well, ever so slightly disappointing.

Now I hasten to admit that there are some major and not so major releases I've yet to catch, and it's possible the film that would otherwise have been my number one was among them.  I mean, there's a chance that The Hobbit Part 27 will turn out to be the classic that the first however-many chunks lumberingly failed to be (it won't) and that Under the Skin was the best Science-Fiction movie that I failed to catch (it just might.)  Therefore I make no bones about the fact that the following is completely personal and largely arbitrary.  Heck, I celebrate it.  That may even be the point!

Also, due to the fact that this post has got so wildly out of control that it's making Blogger creak, I'm splitting it into two parts...

10)  The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1

Oh how I wanted to love The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Pt 1, and oh how hard the crass, money-grabbing decision to split one book needlessly into two movies made it, and then oh how confused that left my feelings when I got to the closing credits and realised that almost everything I genuinely did love in the movie was a direct result of that undeniably wrong-headed decision. 

Because if you once get past the fact that Mockingjay Pt 1 is a film whose primary reason for existing is to set up another film containing all of the actual events that should have been in this one, there's an awful lot to like.  Its enforced slow pace makes it feel almost like a director's cut of another, shallower movie, padded with functionally superfluous but visually and emotionally thrilling odds and ends, and the subjects it dwells heavily upon - the nature of grief, propaganda, the impossible moral conundrums of conflict and social upheaval - are as far from the stuff of usual Hollywood fare as you could hope to get.  Mockingjay, Pt 2 will no doubt get all of the things happening that were missing from Pt 1, and will likely be objectively better for it, but it's hard to imagine it being quite this odd and interesting.

9) X-Men: Days of Future Past

 My hopes for having Singer back on the X-Men franchise - X-Men 2 remains perhaps my favourite superhero movie of all time - were tempered by the fact that he just hasn't been making particularly great movies of late.  And sure enough, Days of Future Past turned out to be neither as wonderful as I'd hoped nor as lousy as I'd feared: infinitely superior to the aptly named and almost franchise-killing X-Men: The Last Stand, a touch ahead of First Class, about a thousand times better than Singer's half-baked Jack the Giant Slayer, and yet still undeniably a letdown.

In the end, though, Singer's direction proved to be neither Days of Future Past's salvation nor its major failing, as it ended up being a good and solidly fashioned film about characters that the franchise has already explored to death - in a couple of cases, literally.  It's impossible to imagine how this wouldn't have been more interesting had it followed the comics in having Kitty Pryde as its time-traveling protagonist and left Wolverine to sit one out; likewise, even with four of my favourite actors playing them, the Professor X / Magneto storyline is surely about tapped out by now.

Nevertheless, 2014 was the year that the X-Men franchise finally got back on track and retconned its greatest failing* out of existence, and for that I'm all sorts of grateful.

8) Godzilla

On paper this was very nearly as dumb and futile as every other attempt by Hollywood to repackage and Americanise another nation's beloved intellectual property.  Read in synopsis, its plot is all sorts of lazy and culturally imperialistic and by-the-book. And perhaps it's only my huge affection for his debut Monsters making me say this, but I can't help feeling that the only thing stopping it from being all of that was the presence of Gareth Edwards behind the wheel.

It seems to me that there are basically two ways you can go with a tentpole giant monster movie: either you take the route favoured by Pacific Rim and show off your monsters as much as you possibly can, or you pretend like all those other giant monster movies never happened and approach your subject with the sense of awe and terror that a 350 foot tall radioactive lizard would really inspire.  Both approaches make sense, but given that we already have Pacific Rim, I'm glad that Edwards' chose the path he did.  Because for me, despite its leaden script, despite its rote plot, that earns the new Godzilla its place at the table: I've never seen a film, perhaps excepting Monsters, that conveyed so determinedly the sense of teeny, tiny human beings facing off against a threat of plain unimaginable scale.

Still, that's really only a trick that you can pull off the once.  So Godzilla 2?  Maybe a bit more of the giant monsters punching each other.

7) Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow, you came so close to being the best Science Fiction movie of the year.  You were tremendous fun, you were smart, you were slick and shiny and exciting and you had some excellent action sequences, two great leads playing entertainingly against type, and getting past that whole "Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers" thing you were surprisingly novel.  So why did you have to blow it all in the last twenty minutes, huh?  If ever there was a film that cried out to not have a traditional Hollywood action movie ending, with a traditional Hollywood idiotic last minute "twist", it was this one.

On a side note: it still sure as hell didn't deserve to flop.  As long as people keep not going to see films like this, Michael Bay is going to keep making Transformers movies.  Is that the world you want to live in?  Responsible film-goers, only you can save mankind.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy

There's not much to be added about how great Guardians of the Galaxy is, is there?  It won almost everyone over, critics and audiences alike, proved that Marvel can basically make films about whatever the hell characters they like and people will pay to see them - my long dreamed-of Moon Knight movie draws one step closer! - and made a sex symbol out of Andy Dwyer, which is just never going to stop being weird.

So why aren't I rating it higher?  Well, mostly for personal and nitpicking reasons, it has to be said.  I'm one of those people who think Star Wars was an entertaining popcorn movie that killed off the greatest period of Sci-fi film-making ever seen, so my affection for this sort of bubblegum space opera is always going to be a touch muted.  I find it all a bit low stakes by the end, and unnecessarily so; who would really have cared if, say, Xandar had been exploded?  I'm growing entirely bored with Marvel movies that end with either spaceships or helicarriers crashing into the ground and / or buildings; that is just not a versatile enough formula that you can use it to end every single movie.  And a strange criticism but one that I couldn't shake on a second viewing: there's nothing anywhere in the film as powerful as that gut punch of an opening sequence, and in my imagination there's a version of GotG that somehow manages to carry those emotional stakes through to its end, and it's a masterpiece for the ages.

But hey, let's end on a positive, shall we?  I can't think of another film this year with such a flawless opening quarter of an hour, and for sheer, unadulterated fun this was surely the highlight of 2014.

Right, that's it for Part 1.  Yeah, all of those words and we're still only at the half way point.  Can you tell I've over-thought this?  Check back in a couple of days for the final five...

* Actually I'd argue that X- Men Origins: Wolverine is an even worse film than The Last Stand, but hey, that's also now out of continuity as well, right?  Bonus points, Mr Singer!**

** Although presumably X-Men and X-Men 2 are also now defunct.  Aargh, time travel paradoxes!  Damn you, Singer, I think maybe.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Research Corner #8: Medievalism

This is a sad thing to admit in public, but one of my big regrets in life is that I dropped History in favour of English Literature in my first year of university.  To this day I have no idea why I did it, because I find History fascinating and studying English Literature just gave me an enormous inferiority complex that put me off writing my own work for years.

Point being, it's been weirdly thrilling to become an amateur historian this year, sort of an insight into a life not lived, and it's been great too to be learning stuff again; how weird that that's become a privilege rather than an obligation!  On the other hand, that isn't exactly to say that it's been easy.  And perhaps the most difficult thing so far in researching next novel White Thorne is that I don't yet have enough of a plot worked out to know exactly what I should be researching.  Unlike pretty much everything else I've written, White Thorne began with a character - a young witch in the late Middle Ages forced to turn her abilities to solving a murder - and has spiraled from there. 

This may sound like a crazy way of writing a book, and a year ago I'd have probably agreed.  Hell, I'd probably agree right now.  Nevertheless it's what I'm doing, and I'd hesitantly call it a success so far, in that a plot is slowly taking form out of the murk.  On the other hand, I've pushed back my start date by two months to accommodate, so perhaps this isn't a method I'll be quick to pursue again.  Nevertheless, there's no denying that it's taken me down some unusual avenues.  Here are just a few...

Dreaming the Middle Ages by Steven F. Kruger

That should be an interesting subject, right?  I mean, dreams are interesting.  The Middle Ages are interesting.  So probably people in the Middle Ages had some wacky dreams that would be good for an anecdote or two down the tavern?

Well, maybe, but if they ever existed then this book would want nothing to do with them.  If two people told this book about their dreams, and one of them dreamed about being kidnapped by ninja pterodactyls and the other one dreamed about doing their accounts on a wet Tuesday, it sure as hell wouldn't be the ninja pterodactyl dream that made it in.  This, in short, was my wake up call that a lot of what I'd be reading would be really goddamn dull.  Dreaming in the Middle Ages?  Sliding into a coma while you read about dreaming in the Middle Ages, more like.

Oh, and if you fancy a copy in hardback it'll set you back £90.  One other thing I'm learning as an amateur historian ... academic history books are a rip-off.*

The Medieval Garden by Sylvia Landsberg

Conversely, this doesn't at all sound like an interesting subject and turned out to be really good.  Landsberg is more than usually passionate about the practicalities of her subject, digging deep into just why and how medieval horticulture must have worked, probably because she's been involved in recreating medieval gardens herself - something the book explores in depth towards its end.

Another thing I'm learning is that coming at the period from oblique angles like this, or looking at it through the lenses of very specialized topics, can be more revealing than trying to get a sense through more generalized text books.  Oh course, that was my thinking with Dreaming in the Middle Ages too, so maybe it's not going to work out so well every time...

Popular Magic: Cunning Folk in English History by Owen Davies

I'm pretty certain I'd read this before, as research for my MA dissertation, which was on the historical phenomenon of witchcraft, (hence, I guess, a large part of why I'm now planning a novel with a witch as the protagonist.)  Anyway, I remember because, coming back to it, I was annoyed and frustrated by all of the same things that annoyed and frustrated me the first time round.

Witchcraft is a fascinating subject, and a surprisingly under-researched one, and Davies spends his entire book coming tantalizingly close to saying truly interesting things - before either shying away or tripping himself up by being a monumental pedant.  Most exasperating for me was the lengthy section where he dismisses connections between English cunning-folk and European shamanism because the former don't meet his crazy-restrictive definition of the latter.  (Basically ... they can't be shamans!  They don't play drums!)  But the whole book, really, suffers from the same flaw: it's the story of a whole lot of phenomena that don't conform to what Davies has decided cunning-folk were and a very few that do.

All of that said, this would probably be massively eye-opening if you didn't know much about the subject of English witchcraft, and there's no getting around the fact that it was a revolutionary text when it came out.  So, as much as it personally wound me up, I guess I find myself still recommending it.

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This, on the other hand, I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone.  Of everything I've read so far, this was surely written with exactly me in mind.  When I was studying History there were signs of a trend towards focusing on how actual people actually lived rather than the bleak, narrativeless, traditional approach, which tells you about as much about people's day to day existence as a spreadsheet would.  Based on what I've read so far, I'm not sure what happened to that, but at least Ian Mortimer took it to heart.

So, The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England has a fair go at doing exactly what it claims to do: it pretends that you the reader have gone back in time and then does its very best to prepare you for that (frankly, horrible) experience.  And if Mortimer doesn't quite pull that nigh-impossible goal off perfectly, he at least does a very good job.  As such, if you write European-modeled Fantasy, or are at all interested in how other human beings have lived in other times, then this is surely a must-read.  It's fascinating stuff, and as entertaining as any History book you're ever likely to come across.

* This being where library's come in useful.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

How To Make Lulu Work For You

And no, I don't mean the singer.  Because honestly, that would be a whole 'nother post, and if I knew how to bend aging former celebrities to my will like that then you can be sure I wouldn't be wasting my time with this writing lark.
Not likely to work for either of us ever.

No, the Lulu I'm talking about is the Print On Demand service.  You know, the one that's not CreateSpace.  The one that I sort of get the impression no one uses much anymore, and that I'm probably only still using out of habit.  Still, that stubborn refusal to explore alternatives despite the fact that Lulu frequently makes me want to strangle myself (again, the POD service rather than the singer.  Although...) has meant that I've managed to get quite a good handle on how to make the most of it.

I should say at this point that what I use Lulu for is mocking up copies of my early drafts of novels, because I don't much like proof-reading from electronic copies and I know a lot of other people don't either - and because there's a certain psychological benefit to having your book-to-be in a form that makes it look and feel like a book when you're trying to hammer it into a book-like shape.  So my emphasis has been on making something readable and cheap, although a couple of disastrous early attempts have had me lean a little towards aesthetically pleasing too.  The main point, though, is that I wouldn't have a clue how to use Lulu to self-publish, although my experiences so far have made me wonder if such a thing would be feasible; I think I've bashed down the costs about as far as they'll go and it still isn't exactly cheap.

Probably not the final cover.
So anyway, the book that I just Lulued was Degenerates, this year's novel number two, which I finished in first draft at the end of October.  I chose Digest from under the Value options, which gives a book 13.97 by 21.59 cm, a ratio somewhat wider and taller than the average paperback but that nevertheless produces something looking and feeling very much like a proper book.  Degenerates, at a whopping 470 pages, came out at £6.25 a copy, which was about acceptable for my purposes; but you see my point about how this might not work for self-publishing.  Because that £6.25 is before P&P, and boy are Lulu's P&P charges on the preposterous side.   With that in mind, be careful to opt for the cheapest option; Lulu will try and convince you that this means your books will turn up in about four years time, but in my experience this is a fib.

A few other thoughts.  If you're planning on doing something similar to what I'm doing, make sure to set your project to "make available only to me" on the first page of options, otherwise you may end up with complete strangers reading your draft novel.  Unless you're ready to create your own cover from scratch, Lulu's cover designer is very much on the rubbish side, and it's exceedingly fussy about the quality of images it will accept; I've gotten around this by using the fantastic and free IrfanView to crank up the resolution and dpi.  Oh, and something I probably shouldn't mention but will anyway: it's very easy to find money off coupon codes for Lulu, which they appear to give out like candy, and they don't seem terribly bothered when you misuse (or reuse) them.  Five minutes of hunting will probably save you at least 15% off your blatantly over-priced order.  Lastly, something I plan to experiment with when I have the time is the options to create an e-book; since Lulu appears not to charge for this and their software sounds quite robust, it might well prove a straightforward and cost-free option.

Those, then, are my experiences of trying to bend Lulu to one specific task.  Has anyone out there found ways to drum that price down even further that I'm missing?  And am I wasting time anyway?  Should I have moved over to CreateSpace long ago, or are there other, better options that I'm not even aware of?